What is ‘Estuary English’?

Spoken by a large and growing number of people in the South of England, Estuary is tipped to dominate general British pronunciation within 50 years. But what is it exactly? What does it sound like? And why do some scholars think it doesn’t exist?

In order to explore the matter, we took the bold step of asking a Received Pronunciation (RP) speaker to interview an Estuary (EE) speaker:

What is ‘Estuary English’?

Well, it’s from the South of England, but it isn’t cockney, and it isn’t RP. It’s somewhere in between, so some people are a bit more towards cockney than others.

I see. Why’s it called ‘Estuary’?

Obviously because it’s spoken around the river Thames, but it’s spread a lot now, you’ll hear it pretty much everywhere within a 50 mile radius of London these days. Everywhere from Essex to Oxford, Kent to Milton Keynes, which is where I’m from. 

Is it posh?

No, not like you. But lots of posh people sound a bit Estuary when they’re trying to impress their mates in the pub, which is pathetic really. It’s a sort of classless accent, but posh people copy it to sound cool.

So it’s cool, is it?

Yeah. Definitely. You should try it.

Thanks for the tip. Presumably lots of trendy famous people speak it then? A-list celebrities and the like.

Loads of famous people speak it, yeah. Comedians like Ricky Gervais and Russell Brand, presenters like Jonathan Ross and the TV chef Jamie Oliver. Loads of singers too, like Adele and the late Amy Winehouse. The new mayor of London, as well, he’s a little bit Estuary.

What’s Estuary’s most striking feature?

We often use a glottal stop instead of a /t/ in words like LITTLE and WHAT. Oh yeah, and I replace /l/ with/u/ at the end of words, like MINIMAL.

Very fashionable. I’ve noticed that you don’t say the /j/ in Estuary. I imagine you drop it in ‘tuna’, ‘tube’ and ’Tunisia’ too, explain please.

Well, actually it sounds better if you pronounce them with /tʃ/ – TUNA, TUBE, TUNISIA and ESTUARY of course. See? That’s much better.

If you say so. I’ve also spotted that you pronounce some of your Hs, but not all of them. Why?

Sometimes I drop /h/, sometimes I keep it. It depends on my mood and my company. I definitely don’t drop it all the time, though, no. Have you got the time? I’m due back at the hotel.

There’s only a few questions left, I won’t keep you. Do you pronounce < th > on the teeth?

I fink so. Ha ha, only joking. I think I do. Hang on, I’m not sure. Ask me something else.

I think you just said “somefing”. Anyway, lots of academics can’t work Estuary out, can they? They call it all sorts of things, like “London Regional General British” and “Popular London”. Journalists aren’t much kinder, with one national cricket correspondent calling it a “ghastly estuary sludge“. Others suggest that it’s not really an accent at all. How do you feel about that?

You should hear what they say about you.  “Queen’s English”, “BBC”, “Oxford”. At least real people actually speak Estuary. Anyway, who cares what people say? Next question.

Some predict that Estuary will replace RP within 50 years – what’s your opinion on that?

I really hope so. Can I go now?